I cringed quite a bit when Martese Johnson yelled out “I go to UVA”. Not just because he was bloodied and being held on the ground like a pig for slaughter (though that was plenty reason enough), but also because I heard the plea in his voice when he said it. He was screaming that he goes to the University of Virginia as if it would defend him from the racism he was experiencing. I don’t blame Martese for that; I’m not insinuating that he fully subscribes to respectability politics like some people are, I’m just pointing out the fact that even people who support the Black struggle in every other fashion often still privilege PWIs (predominately white institutions) over HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities) and cherish attending or having attended the former. Many of them feel that attending these schools will prepare them more for the real world because they can teach them “better”. Some just truly believe that you have to infiltrate the Harvards, OUs and UVAs of the world to be great, and to do so deserves respect. I'm not even saying that Martese believes that; but I am saying I don't agree.
Before I go any further, let me just say that I DO NOT hate or even dislike black people at PWIs. I know that a lot of my social media followers probably feel like I do because I always advocate for HBCUs, but I really don’t. I fully understand that there are a number of reasons why someone would choose to go to a PWI that don't mean they hate blackness. What I DO hate is when people have this insane belief that their education is better or more valuable because they went to a PWI, that an HBCU won’t give you a taste of the “real world”, and especially when people completely ignore the HBCUs around them because they bought into that idea that a school is automatically better because the same people who enslaved and/or lynched yours and my ancestors said so. In my Chief Keef voice, THAT’s that shit I don’t like.
I actually want to talk a little bit more about this myth that PWIs, especially Ivy Leagues, are the greatest schools on Earth. When I graduated from high school I got accepted to Yale University. Yes, this little Black kid from the Mississippi Delta got accepted to an Ivy League institution fresh outta high school. I was smart ya'll. Anyway, most people thought I was crazy for not jumping at the opportunity; they told me that as smart as I was I should go somewhere like Yale, despite everything that made Yale not a good choice. As of right now Yale only lets in about 6% of the people who apply, and all of them must pay a yearly tuition of $45,000. Even if I had’ve gotten some scholarship money (I didn’t) I would’ve been a part of the whooping 9% of Black people in the over 12,000 person student population at a school almost 20 hours away from home. That would’ve meant I would’ve had to search high and low not only for the other 1079 Black people for things like a haircut or a decent meal, but I also would’ve had to become friends with them or somebody really fast because I was probably not gonna see my parents again for quite some time. (In case you think I'm saying this to make Yale look bad, all this info can be found here)
I would've been an idiot to not go to Alcorn State University. The school was two hours (if you drove right) from my front doorstep so it was far enough to not be right under my parents but close enough where I could get home if I had to. I received a full academic scholarship of about $40,000 which covered all four years of my tuition and was even able to secure a couple more scholarships to get me some extra pocket change. Even though Alcorn was (is) in the middle of “nowhere” I was still able to find several people and places to get food, haircuts, and pretty much whatever else I could think of one way or another on “the yard”. But what was probably best about being at Alcorn was what is known as the HBCU culture. My parents, both graduates of Lane College introduced it to me when they used to take me to Lane homecomings every year, and at Alcorn I experienced it for myself. I’m not talking about the fantastic band, fun Greek life or Chicken Wednesdays and Fish Fridays; I’m talking about being surrounded by a student population of over 90% of Black Excellence.
I know what you're thinking. No, I'm not just saying we should support HBCUs because they are Black institutions (though it is a good reason). I'm saying we should support them because being surrounded by Black people excelling in many different fields is a powerful experience that I think every Black person should have. At Alcorn I met a host of people from schools all over the US and outside of it who would go on to intern with major news corporations, teach in and run academic departments in various schools, travel the globe to learn about the sciences, present world changing research at major conferences and easily compete with anyone in graduate programs around the country. We already know how important seeing people who look like you succeeding is, so it only makes sense that learning alongside them will help push you to be better than you ever were. I am eternally grateful to Alcorn for what I learned there. I learned to value people who look like me, and I learned that despite what other people thought, this is what excellency and legacy look like.
I know that some people still won’t understand it. Some people still won’t understand the privilege it is to attend an institution built on such a rich tradition. Some will criticize Taraji P. Henson’s decision to send her son to her alma mater as the move of someone who is “running away” from racism. Others will even say that HBCUs shouldn’t even be in the conversation as an alternative to PWIs because they have their own issues, and a lot of people will continue to think HBCUs are irrelevant (they're wrong). People will keep expecting HBCUs to be perfect while they excuse every problem at PWIs because they are "prestigious", and they will continue to beg HBCU advocates to “Stop the HBCU vs. PWI debate”, but as I have said before those who cry (and yes, they do cry) for that are the same people who will tell you to “stop making everything about race”. If you ignore a problem it DOES NOT go away, sorry to say. Most of all people will continue to downgrade HBCUs but turn right around and want their PWI bands to have their sounds, want their PWI Greeks to have their energy, and want their PWIs to have a “Black center/caucus/student union” to make a safe space for them. The issue here is actually simple; it's mostly valuing and respect. Until people value Southern as much as LSU or Alabama State as much as UA there will always be people who promote the HBCU legacy, and until I can yell “I go to Alcorn” and expect the same respect as if I yelled “I go to UVA” I’m going to always advocate for the support of these institutions, and you should as well. If we yell #BlackLivesMatter and #SupportBlackBusinesses, why don't the lives that were put into these schools matter? Why don't we support the business of these centuries old HBCUs? If we can't value that blackness how in the world can we value blackness anywhere else?
What do you think could be done to encourage more people to value HBCUs? Should we all just go to them for our education? Leave your questions, comments, and concerns below and don't forget to like, share and subscribe!